Officials respond to claims by People's Rights group
Last updated 8/6/2020 at 9:18am
The evening of July 28, a group called People's Rights Montana held a meeting, the fifth of its kind, in the empty Tilleman Dodge building on Highway 2 East in Havre, a meeting that drew 50 people, in which speaker Jerry Taylor Jr., the area assistant for the group, gave a presentation on the supposed dangers of wearing masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
"I don't want to criticize people who wear masks, if they choose to wear a mask that's their right," he said, ... but we need to understand the reality."
Taylor and others repeatedly talked about the dangers of wearing a mask and how that, and other recommendations on reducing the spread of COVID-19, don't work.
The claims are coming as the COVID-19 death toll in Montana rose to 64 with 268 more new cases over the weekend and state total of 4,233 cases.
Blaine, Chouteau and Hill counties each have reported a new confirmed case, with the state tracking map this morning listing a total of 40 cases in Hill County, nine in Blaine and seven in Chouteau.
Doctors, researchers and experts at groups and agencies like American Medical Association, National Institute of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization have said evidence shows actions like wearing masks or face coverings when out in public, staying at least six feet from others when outside of the home and limiting the time spent in public places will reduce the spread of the virus.
President Donald Trump endorsed July 20 wearing a mask, calling it patriotic.
The people at the People's Rights meeting in Havre last Tuesday said those measures won't help, and could hurt and the entire system is putting out a false message.
A national movement against government regulations
People being interviewed after last Tuesday's People's Rights meeting in Havre - who say their principle is that no one can tell another what they can or cannot do - told the Havre Daily News it could not record the interview. They generally did not answer specific questions on precisely what their goals are or what actions they will take.
They say they have circulated a request - it is called "Redress of Grievance petition" requesting Gov. Steve Bullock resign, be impeached or be arrested for issuing directives the petition claims violates peoples' constitutional rights.
The People's Rights movement is centered around Ammon Bundy, of the Bundys who led an armed standoff in Nevada in 2014 due to the federal government attempting to confiscate cattle owned by Cliven Bundy, Ammon Bundy's father. The government said it was attempting to confiscate the cattle, under a court order, because the Bundys refused to pay fees for grazing their cattle on federal land or to pay fines for failing to pay the fees.
Bureau of Land Management said Bundy owed the government more than $1 million.
The Bundys claim the federal government has no authority over land and cannot charge fees or regulate use of the land.
Ammon Bundy led an occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2016, that included the shooting death of one of his supporters when he resisted arrest after running a roadblock, including striking an FBI agent with his vehicle. Bundy's supporter was shot when he appeared to reach toward a pocket in which the FBI said they found a loaded 9 mm sidearm.
He has been making calls on Facebook for people to join People's Rights.
The locals at the People's Rights meeting in Havre last Tuesday during the meeting and in the interview afterward did not say they were affiliated with Ammon Bundy - they maintained they are just Montana residents trying to protect constitutional rights - but Taylor said during the meeting that he knows Cliven Bundy.
Other People's Rights members also have mentioned Bundy. Kalispell contractor Nicholas Bundy, a Libertarian candidate for the state House of Representatives and a founder of People's Rights Montana District 4, said he has been in contact with Bundy several times over the past few years.
"Ammon and I have talked on the phone several occasions. We have cross-pollinated ideas with each other," Ramlow said in an interview with Northwest Liberty News posted April 16.
Bundy had not responded by printing deadline this morning to a request for comments made by Havre Daily News.
Ammon Bundy previously has spoken in Montana several times about his claim the federal government cannot own land and has no authority over local management of land.
Now his focus has turned to directives during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Looking for anti-government members
Bundy is one of the main figures, if not the main figure, of the national People's Rights campaign. He has made a call on Facebook for people to join People's Rights.
Bundy has appeared at several events or actions in the west with other members of the People's Rights group to protest gubernatorial directives on the COVID-19 pandemic.
KTVB television reports that a July 16 public health board meeting in Caldwell, Idaho, scheduled to discuss public health mandating wearing masks, was canceled and rescheduled after Bundy and members of the local People's Rights movement tried to attend and were not allowed in.
Officials said that was because access to the building was only allowed if people agreed to have their temperatures taken and wore masks, which Bundy and the others in the group refused.
Bundy said those issues never were raised when they were denied entrance.
A video posted by KTVB shows Bundy, accompanied by local People's Rights members, shoving a mask-wearing staff member aside and forcing his way into the area where the meeting was scheduled..
"This is not your building. This is not your building," Bundy can be heard saying. "No, no, no, no, no, we will not be pushed, locked out."
"You're going to cancel the meeting, or you're going to let us in, or you're going to call the officers to arrest us," Bundy says in the video.
The districts created in Montana are part of the organization's national push to create districts and recruit members.
The leader of one of the most aggressive militias in the state, Tim Westervelt of Yellowstone MIlitia of Billings, has listed on his Facebook page that he is "Physical Defense Committee member at People's rights (sic)."
Members of Yellowstone Militia of Billings appeared carrying arms at a COVID-19 restrictions protest in Helena April 19 and also appeared carrying arms during a George Floyd rally June 7 in Billings to protest Floyd's May 25 death at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis.
People's Rights is doing more than trying to get members, it apparently is looking for where to plug them in to use their skills in promoting the organization's message.
The national People's Rights application for membership, and the application on the local Montana District 1 website, includes asking the applicant for their skill sets.
"Please list special Skill(s) or training that you have, such as Ham Radio, Welding, Marketing, CDL Driver, Editor, Accounting, etc.," the applications say.
Travis McAdam of Montana Human Rights Network said the push to grow the organization seems to be trying to avoid being represented as militia or patriot groups, probably because of the bad publicity associated with those anti-federal government groups.
But, he said, the end result is the same.
The groups take advantage of people's frustration, anger and anxiety because of the pandemic to recruit members to oppose government action.
He added that the target of the group is the public health department trying to prevent the spread of the virus.
"The people trying to protect public health become targets, become the enemies," McAdam said.
Officials contradict the movement
But local and state officials say the message put out by People's Rights is completely incorrect.
In an interview in Helena Wednesday, Bullock said the claim that his directives are unconstitutional is wrong.
Bullock said the last two centuries of rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, as well the Montana State Constitution clearly gives him the authority to issue directives like this.
"For 200 years the courts have been pretty darn clear that in public health emergencies example restrictions can be made," Bullock said. "And, I'm not unique in this when you look at stay-at-home orders and things - I mean Democrat and Republican states have taken these actions to limit the spread of transmission and our hospitals being overwhelmed, and everything else."
As well as sending the document to the Governor's Office the group claims to have sent the document to numerous local officials including the Hill County Commission, Hill County Attorney Karen Alley, Havre Mayor Tim Solomon, City of Havre Attorney, the Havre Police Department and the Hill County Sheriff's Office, although Bullock and Alley said they have not received any such document.
Havre Chief of Police Gabe Matosich said if the group were to attempt to obstruct officers in the event that the directive had to be enforced the matter would be given to Hill County Attorney Karen Alley.
"If we had to enforce something like that we'd write everything up and send it over to the county attorney and she would file the charges on anybody," Matosich said.
However he said he thinks that scenario is unlikely because the Hill County Health Department has been doing a good job educating people on the effectiveness of masks. Hill County Health Director Kim Larson said the department has not needed to go beyond the initial educational call with any businesses so far.
Matosich also said as long as the meetings remain peaceful he's not especially worried about the group.
"As long as they're not violating the law in any way shape or form it doesn't matter to us," he said.
Hill County Commissioner Mike Wendland has said he thinks the group is not worth engaging with.
"I will not get in a running dialogue with them," he said, "A radical militia group can do as they wish, but I will be following the governor's directive about masks."
One of Taylor's claims was that the fear and anxiety caused by masks is destroying the public's immune systems through stress making the virus, and potentially other diseases worse and that the masks are meant to incite political division among the public.
Larson said part of public health organizations' jobs are to monitor the emotional and psychological health of the public as well as physical health.
"The mission of the Hill County Health Department is, 'Through collaborative efforts, we promote physical and emotional health, foster personal responsibility, prevent disease injury and disability and protect the environment.' We have a strategic plan that outlines our efforts of working toward that mission and doing our very best to keep the members of our community healthy and safe," Larson said.
During the presentation Taylor accused the Hill County Health Department, as well as the larger medical community and Gov. Bullock, of using threats exclusively to enforce the recent mask directive and not providing accurate information to the public.
"Where is the education from the health department, where is it?" he said at the meeting.
The first step in the Hill County Health Department's three-step process for enforcing the directive is education and the directive itself states that this is the primary role of local public health and in his press conference announcing the directive. Bullock said enforcement should only happen in the case of repeated and egregious violations.
Larson said the employees of the health department, herself included, are highly educated in matters like this and qualified to deal with the issue of public health.
"I, myself am Nationally Certified in Public Health through the National Board of Public Health Examiners, and along with that certification comes the requirement of 50 CEUs every two years and the obligation to follow the Code of Ethics set forth by NBPHE," she said.
Hill County Sheriff Jamieson Ross referred the Havre Daily to an opinion piece signed by him and other sheriff's in the state which says the directives are not enforceable laws.
"As your locally elected sheriffs, we will educate the public about the governor's mask directive. We urge you to take personal responsibility and be respectful of all Montana citizens," the piece says.
The Havre Daily News and Solomon have been trading voicemails and had not connected by printing deadline this morning.
Alley had not responded to requests for comment by printing deadline this morning, other than in response to an initial question to say she never had received the document
Pushing into school re-opening
During Tuesday's meeting, a member of the audience said the rights of students in Hill County, who can't advocate for themselves, are in danger of being overridden by the Havre Public School Board of Trustees who have been discussing various re-opening plans in the past week.
Ed Hill, a member of the Havre School Board who is running for the state House of Representatives who attended the meeting encouraged everyone at the meeting to attend the next board meeting.
"The next school board meeting when there's the five or six board members and the health department, they made that decision that way already, now what's the decision when there are 250 of you standing around the board... the fair board, the health board, the schools all that stops when you let those boards know that you have their backs and you think this way," another attendee said. "That's how you stop it."
Havre Public Schools Interim Superintendent Craig Mueller said The Havre Board of Trustees and administration would like to hear people's support, concerns and questions regarding the district's re-opening plan.
He said people can send their responses to [email protected]
Krystal Steinmetz, Hill's Democratic candidate in the House race, said wearing a mask is simply the right thing to do.
"Wearing a mask is simply the right thing to do. A mask helps protect the health and safety of you, your family, friends, neighbors and our community," she said. "If you don't want to follow the governor's mandate to wear a mask, that is your right. But it's not OK for you to potentially put others at risk. Remember: You wear a mask to protect other people, not yourself."
Businesses put up People's Rights signs
The meetings are held at an empty Tilleman Dodge Building on Highway 2 East.
Tilleman Dodge Owner Craig Tilleman said he is not a member of the People's Right District 1 group.
"Since my building and parking lot has been vacant I have allowed the Abundant Life Church to hold services outdoors, the Greater Havre Ministerial Association to hold a meeting and now the People's Rights group," he said.
The group has also offered placards to local businesses that the businesses can post - one is posted at Tilleman Motor Co. The placards say, "This business is protected by the people of the state of Montana.
Any government official trying to enforce the governor's unlawful (directives implementing executive orders) is required to call the listed number prior to entering Bob Ingram said at Tuesday's meeting that is his number.
Businesses like Holden's Hot Wheels, Floren Hill County Printing and the Park Hotel, have posted these placards.
The Havre Daily learned this morning that Leon's Buy and Sell also has a sign.
Shawn Holden of Holden's Hot Wheels had not responded to comment by print deadline this morning.
Robert Floren of Floren Hill County Printing declined to comment.
Havre Daily News was not able to contact a representative of the Park Hotel.